The future of screen fonts

Last month Dutch type foundry Typotheque released what they call “a parametric bitmap font system” called Elementar. Is this the future of screen fonts?

Last month Dutch type foundry Typotheque released what they call “a parametric bitmap font system” called Elementar. Designed by Gustavo Ferreira, the development of this project started back in 2002. The intention of Elementar is to address the issue of contemporary fonts rendering poorly on screen, especially at smaller sizes.

You see, the whole process of conventional font design is not geared towards optimal display on electronic screens. Fonts consist of curves forming the outlines of each individual glyph.

Font design outlines

The result from high resolution output devices like printers is smooth and crisp, but fonts do not translate well to the rasterised grid display of computer screens – they end up looking blurry, jagged and illegible. A process known as font hinting can be applied to align the outlines with the pixel grid for better display. The problem with hinting is that it is a time consuming and labour intensive job which does not make it financially viable for many type foundries. This has lead to lots of unhinted, poorly legible fonts found on the internet today. You can read more about this issue on Typographica.

Rather than adapting an outline font for electronic display, Elementar is produced within the parameters of the screen display grid. The resulting fonts are non-scaleable and size-specific, which makes it quite inflexible, but this issue is addressed by producing “thousands” of possible sizes, widths and weights. You can explore these combinations online or with a free iPad app, also released by Typotheque.

Elementar font system

I agree that screen type is in dire need of a better solution, but is Elementar it? To be honest it looks pretty damn old school. And with the advent of Apple’s Retina Display and the likes, do we even need to worry about the distinction between print and screen anymore? Maybe Elementar is nine years too late. What are your thoughts?